Milking the Cow

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NEW DELHI, MAR 10 :- Men load a cow onto a truck in the Jantar Mantar area of New Delhi, India, March 10, 2016. REUTERS-11R

Way back in the fifties, the Supreme Court ruled that a ban on cattle slaughter would seriously affect some occupations. But today, we are witnessing more dangerous and mindless acts of violence as right wing groups try to “protect” the cow    

By Kalyani Shankar

Talk about the holy cow and unholy politics. As gau rakshaks go rampaging all over India, is our country’s social fabric under threat? JD (U) leader Sharad Yadav asked a pertinent question in the Rajya Sabha recently: “Who created these gau rakshaks? Why doesn’t the government ban them? What is this tamasha? We talk about Taliban… our caste system has a Taliban-like attitude, we need to discuss that.” He was not wrong when he said this, as every day, new incidents of aggressive cow vigilantism and systemic cruelty towards the weaker sections and minorities are reported.

Puja being performed for an old cow at Sree Padmanabha Swamy temple in Thiruvananthapuram. Photo: UNI
Puja being performed for an old cow at Sree Padmanabha Swamy temple in Thiruvananthapuram. Photo: UNI

While millions of Dalits are dependent on jobs where leather is skinned from dead animals, Muslims tan them. In recent times, cow vigilante groups have taken the law into their own hands emboldened by the ascendency of the saffron party. Of the 18 such incidents from last October to August this year, 16 have been reported from BJP-ruled states. 

COW VIGILANTISM

In Madhya Pradesh, two Dalit women were assaulted for supposedly carrying cow meat. In Punjab, two boys were beaten up and urinated upon for the same reason. A 16-year-old Kashmiri Muslim youth was murdered for riding on a truck transporting cattle. Two Muslims allegedly transporting beef in Haryana were made to eat cow dung. In Jharkhand, two cattle traders were hanged from a tree in March. Dalits and Muslims see some connection in these incidents.

Modi had encouraged cow vigilante groups and had made cow protection a key poll issue in his 2014 campaign, criticizing the “pink revolution”.

No doubt, the cow has become a poll issue. Politically, these mindless attacks might push Dalits and Muslims to come together. BSP chief Mayawati observed: “In the name of cow protection, in the past one-and-a-half years, first there were atrocities against Muslims, now we see even Dalits are not being spared. This is not just in Gujarat but across the country, especially in BJP-ruled states.”

Hema Malini, MP, feeding a cow during the inaguration of Gau Anusansadhan Sansthan Parisar in Mathura. Photo: UNI
Hema Malini, MP, feeding a cow during the inauguration of Gau Anusansadhan Sansthan Parisar in Mathura. Photo: UNI

Mayawati’s observation is pertinent in view of the crucial assembly elections in Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Goa, Manipur and Uttarakhand next year. In 2018, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Karnataka, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, and Tripura go to the polls. The BJP, which is on the back foot, will make every effort to mollify dissenting groups before the electoral race begins.

 POLITICAL GAINS

The Sangh Parivar has always been in favor of cow protection. In 1966, a mob of around 10,000 stormed parliament demanding a ban on cow slaughter. The VHP is planning the 50th anniversary of this event on November 7. But there is a difference between cow protection and cow vigilantism. Gau rakshak committees have mushroomed in the past two years and the BJP has realized the damage some of the cow vigilante groups are doing to its poll prospects. Significantly, Punjab has a 31 percent Dalit population. With just a two percent difference in vote share between the Congress and the ruling Akali-BJP combine, Dalits and Muslims cannot be ignored. In UP, the political equation is even more formidable as Dalits comprise 22 percent and Muslims, 18 percent. Though the BJP was enthused by Dalit support in the 2014 polls when the party got 71 out of the 80 seats in the state, will this situation hold in future? If Muslims consolidate behind Dalits, Mayawati can swing the results in as many as 250 seats out of a total of 403 in UP.

Of the 29 states, 24 have passed legislation outlawing cow slaughter. States like Maharashtra, Haryana and Jharkhand have tightened laws against cow slaughter in the past two years. Haryana has constituted three special teams for cow protection.

The opposition is using the cow vigilante issue to attack the Modi government. Congress leader Ghulam Nabi Azad observed in the Rajya Sabha: “The PM talks of building India as a superpower. What I don’t understand is how will he do this by isolating those who make up almost 45 percent of the country’s population.”  Other leaders have also bashed these vigilante groups and are appalled at their audacity in taking the law into their own hands.

VHP leader Praveen Togadia. Photo: UNI
VHP leader Praveen Togadia. Photo: UNI

There is no doubt that for Hindus, the cow, worshipped as “Gau Mata” remains a protected animal. They use panchagavya of the cow—milk, curd, ghee, butter, urine and dung—in puja. They believe that cow urine detoxifies the body and can cure health problems like diabetes, high blood pressure, arthritis and skin disease. There is a demand that the cow should replace the tiger as the national animal. The Modi government has spent Rs 5.8 billion for cow shelters. Rajasthan has gone further, creating a ministry of cow affairs. Yoga guru Baba Ramdev’s Patanjali Ayurveda proposes to invest Rs 500 crore in four mega cow shelters across the country. Punjab wants to tax alcohol to pay for shelters for stray cattle.

LEGAL HISTORY

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The ban on cow slaughter has its own legal history. Way back in the fifties, an apex court ruling on the constitutionality of the Bihar Preservation and Improvement of Animals Act, the UP Prevention of Cow Slaughter Act, 1955, and the CP and Berar Animal Preservation Act, 1949, observed: “Total ban on the slaughter of cattle, useful or otherwise is calculated to bring about a serious dislocation, though not a complete stoppage of the business of a considerable section of the people who are by occupation butchers, hide merchants and so on.” However, in 2005, a larger Supreme Court bench upheld as constitutional a total ban on slaughter of cattle, irrespective of age and usefulness.

While millions of Dalits are dependent on jobs where leather is skinned from dead animals, Muslims tan them. In recent times, cow vigilante groups have taken the law into their own hands emboldened by the ascendency of the saffron party. Of the 18 such incidents from last October to August this year, 16 have been reported from BJP-ruled states.   

Of the 29 states, 24 have passed legislation outlawing cow slaughter. States like Maharashtra, Haryana and Jharkhand have tightened laws against cow slaughter in the past two years. Haryana has constituted three special teams for cow protection.

Rashtriya Ahimsa Manch members perform hawan for Gau Raksha (cow protection) at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi. Photo: UNI
Rashtriya Ahimsa Manch members perform hawan for Gau Raksha (cow protection) at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi. Photo: UNI

It is nobody’s case that Modi had encouraged these cow vigilante groups and made cow protection a key poll issue in his 2014 campaign, criticizing the “pink revolution” and making speeches about how slaughter for meat is a major threat to cows. Then came the beef ban in Maharashtra last year, which hit Muslims and Dalits. Beef ban was an issue even during the October 2015 Bihar assembly polls but voters rejected cow politics. The lynching of Mohammad Akhlaq in Dadri in UP by a right-wing Hindu mob over rumors of possessing beef made international headlines. Meanwhile, Dalit consolidation was also seen after the tragic suicide of Rohith Vemula, a Dalit scholar in Hyderabad. The immediate provocation for the present Dalit uprising was a July 11 incident when four members of a Dalit family in Una in Gujarat were stripped, tied to a car, dragged for about a kilometer and then beaten with iron rods by self-proclaimed gau rakshaks.

MODI REACTS

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With more and more incidents of atrocities by cow vigilante groups coming to light, Modi personally had to step in to find a balance between Dalit anger and Hindu right wing groups. Breaking his silence on August 7, Modi remarked in Gajwel in Telangana: “If you have to attack, attack me. Stop attacking my Dalit brethren. If you have to shoot, shoot me, but not my Dalit brothers. This game should stop.” The next day in a Town Hall meeting in Delhi, he lashed out at “fake cow protectors” for trying to create “tension and conflict” in society and asked states to take stringent action against self- proclaimed cow vigilante groups. These strong words were meant to cut the BJP’s losses vis-à-vis Dalits. Modi’s gamble was that while some BJP core voters might have been offended, these words would assuage Dalit voters.

A woman pastes cow dung cakes on a wall to dry in Allahabad. Photo: UNI
A woman pastes cow dung cakes on a wall to dry in Allahabad. Photo: UNI

The damage control came at a time when the RSS was desperately trying to consolidate in Gujarat and elsewhere to bring Dalits and other backward Hindu communities within its fold. Interestingly, RSS general secretary Suresh Bhaiyaji Joshi also condemned the attacks on Dalits. Now, another RSS leader, Suresh Soni, has been asked to douse the Dalit fire.

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Understanding the politics in Modi’s outburst, Mayawati likened him to the mythical Kumbhakarna. “He has woken up now because assembly elections are going to take place in Uttar Pradesh and some other states. He knew that he would not get a single Dalit vote. He gave the statements to get Dalit votes,”she said. Significantly, while the PM tried to show that Dalits’ pain was his own, he did not show any empathy for Muslims who were equally affected.

CRITICS GALORE

But Hindutva hawks are upset with Modi’s outburst. His one-time-friend-turned-foe VHP leader Praveen Togadia dared Modi on his gau rakshak remarks and demanded that he withdraw them. Criticism against Modi also came from the Shiv Sena. “Our question to Modi is, why is that such people, who in the name of cow protection carry out illegal activities, cropped up in the last two years,” an editorial in Sena mouthpiece Saamna asked. The Hindu Mahasabha promised to do a yagna to help the PM “regain his senses”.

A victim of caste violence at Civil Hospital in Ahmedabad. Photo: UNI
A victim of caste violence at Civil Hospital in Ahmedabad. Photo: UNI

It is time that the BJP stopped playing cow politics and targeting innocent Dalits and Muslims for political gains. It should realize that people will no longer buy this lip service and would like action on the ground. It is time political parties realized that Dalits and Muslims can’t be treated as vote banks. When leaders like Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi or BJP chief Amit Shah make a big show of dining with Dalits, is it likely that they can’t see through this sham?

Caste-based discrimination is a reality even in the 21st century. Dalits, Muslims and Adivasis continue to get a raw deal. While there was no avenue for Dalit expression earlier, now with a very visible media and social media, atrocities against them cannot be hidden. They have begun to assert themselves and with Mayawati as their leader, sooner or later, they may achieve it.

Lead Picture: Loading a stray cow onto a truck at Jantar Mantar, New Delhi. Photo: UNI